God’s Country

The subject of mountains and climbing them seems to be coming up a lot more in the news as a result of recent events. Questions like: should beacons or GPS devices be mandatory or should people even be allowed to do this type of activity in the winter top the conversation topics. I read a beautifully written post by a friend of Luke & Katie’s who addresses some of the why’s behind his drive to climb. More than a few of the things he said resonated with me, so I thought I would take the opportunity to vocalize some of my own thoughts around this.

First, let me just say that I am not a mountaineer, but I think that this is less due to a lack of will and more a result of my environment growing up. When you’re raised on the East Coast, there aren’t really a whole lot of mountains around to climb… Hills to hike maybe, but not true mountains. However, for years I have been fascinated by climbing. If there’s a book written about it, I’ve probably read it. If there’s been a movie, documentary, or TV show made, I’ve probably seen it. Even the completely unrealistic, cheesy fictional ones. I also enjoy pushing myself to see what I’m capable of. For example, I refused to take any seasickness medication before going out on my first big sailing trip because I wanted to see if I would actually need it. Turns out I didn’t. I did the same thing when I went to Peru to hike the Inca trail. I didn’t take anything to help with altitude sickness because I wanted to see how well my body would adjust on its own. Turned out it adjusted pretty well, although I did have some issues the one night when we stayed above 14,000 feet. I want to run a marathon this year for this reason. In the same way, the challenge of mountaineering is extremely attractive to me. Pair that with my adventurous spirit, throw in my love affair with mountains and the outdoors, an interest in climbing seems like a natural byproduct.

As many of you know, I was born in Bend, Oregon and I have come to believe that this somehow encoded a love of mountains into my DNA. I adore them (they’re not part of the illustration on my blog by accident!) and can’t underscore enough how much I look forward to living back among them again. But since my parents moved me to the Philly area when I was a mere 6-months-old, my affection for mountains lay dormant until the first time I saw some in person.

I was 20 and was headed to Seattle to attend the Christian Writer’s Conference at Seattle Pacific University. I had first flown to San Francisco and spent a few days with my family there before flying from San Jose up to SEA. I had a window seat and was looking out at the clouds when suddenly noticed a particularly large object jutting up through them. It look me awhile to realize I was staring at Mount Hood. I was so overwhelmed with its beauty that my eyes immediately welled-up with tears. Pictures and movies hadn’t even come close to preparing me for the actual majesty of an in-person mountain.

Alaska was where I became truly addicted to them, though. There is nothing like being up in a small plane and looking out to see nothing but miles upon miles upon miles of a rippled mountain landscape coated in snow. There is something so awe-inspiring and quieting about them that words alone fall short in conveying. In Alaska, you also have the added bonus of being literally surrounded… Some volcanic (like Augustine and Redoubt), but more just the ranges of them that run down to the sea. One of my favorite places to go when I needed to get away for a minute without going far was up to Flattop. Flattop, so named for its flat top, is a mountain just on the edge of Anchorage and part of the Chugach Range. It’s a great hiking mountain in the summer especially, but there’s also a fantastic vista point not far from the parking lot where you can see for miles…all the way up to Denali on a clear day. I used to love to drive up there on winter mornings when the whole of Anchorage was encased in an ice fog. On the drive up, the fog would be dense and heavy, but it would start to thin near the top until suddenly you emerged in the crisp, winter air and glorious sunlight. The city below would be completely cloaked and you could imagine yourself alone in the world. To echo some of Ben’s sentiments from his post, I have always experienced God in the mountains in a different way than I have elsewhere.

Biblically, this makes sense to me as well.  God seems to have a special place in His heart for mountains. I love how He always had His temples among his people, but when He chose to take up residence with the Israelites in the desert and speak to Moses, it was on a mountain. Jesus also had a thing for mountains. The gospels speak repeatedly of him going up into the mountains by himself to pray…sometimes he would stay there all night (Luke 6:12). He also did a lot of his speaking from mountainsides (but I suspect that probably had more to do with acoustics).

Shortly after arriving in Alaska, my friend who moved with me had decided she wanted to go home. Those first few months there after she left were some of the loneliest I’ve ever known as I tried to figure out what my new life would look like 5,000 miles from everything I knew “home” to be. But the great paradox I learned is that it’s in loneliness that I feel the least alone for it’s in loneliness when I am most reminded that I am not alone.  God is there.  As David writes in Psalm 139:7-9…

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,

Even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.

It was also during this time that God used the mountains as perspective givers for me. If things weren’t going well, or if I was feeling overwhelmed with life, I would just drive out to where I could spend some time with the mountains and in prayer. It’s extremely humbling to stand on (or even next to) something so majestically huge with the knowledge that it was formed by our God through His power alone (Psalm 65:6). He is indeed an awesome God.

I wrote the following poem on 10/14/96 during my first few weeks in Alaska…not surprisingly, it begins and ends with mountains:

The mountains stretch out
Across purple skies
To the end of the world
Or so it seems.
But they do stretch far
Far out of sight.
Beyond comprehension.
Beyond confusion.
Beyond dismissal.
Beyond betrayal.
Beyond lies.
Beyond fear.
Beyond feelings of hopelessness
And loss.
All my fragments
Of ragged dreams
Are swallowed up
In the magnificence
Of jagged rocks
Blanketed with snow.
The enormity
Of the mountains
Makes problems seem
So I sit
In stillness
And focus
On the mountains.

Partly what I love about not just mountains, but the wilderness in general is the peace that’s there. I feel like peace is often so hard to find today in our crazed tilt-a-whirl lives. In an attempt to obtain it, I will sometimes purposely leave my cell phone at home (gasp!). I love when I go on trips that cause me to abandon my connections to the world. I have found that when I extract myself from the craziness of life, turn off my cell phone, and just allow myself to be quiet, God is able to speak without competing distractions, and I find I am often more apt to hear Him. The wilderness gives me an excuse to do that.

John Muir once said:

To the lover of wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world.

When I had gone back to AK for a visit in 2002, it was a particularly clear day and Denali was so stunning, I decided to go on a flight-seeing trip out of Talkeetna up to the mountain.  It was kind of last minute, and outside of the regular tourist schedule, but I found someone to take me and ended up with a bonus – the pilot was flying the first climber of the season out to Denali base camp and I got to ride along. On the way back, the pilot told me about someone he had dropped off on a glacier near Denali for several weeks over the winter. I had actually read an article about it so was even more interested when the pilot told me he had been their “taxi” to and from their adventure. To be left in the middle of the mountains in Alaska would probably be a nightmare for some, but it sounded like heaven to me.

There has been a lot of judgment flying around from the so-called “armchair experts” who are, in my opinion, awfully brash – throwing their dogmatic opinions at people and on topics about which they have little knowledge and no personal experience. While not a mountain climber myself (or at least not currently), I still can understand the drives and the desires that motivate them… I also know the joy that comes in doing something you love, even when discomfort – or even danger – are involved. I think I realized this the most acutely on the second day of the Inca Trail. It was the day I both looked forward to and dreaded with the same breath. Most guidebooks even referred to it as “grueling”. We were coming up to the highest point of the trek at 13,770 feet – Dead Woman’s Pass. We were tired, sore, hungry, wet, and cold. I remember stopping for a breather at one point and saying to one of the other members of my group that I was walking with that, even though I was as physically uncomfortable as I was, I was also incredibly happy. “At this moment,” I told her, “there is absolutely no other place in the world I would rather be.”

That’s a fantastic state to be in. One day, I hope to reside there permanently… For now though, part of my journey is learning to live in contentment with where God has me. But He also knows my heart…better than anyone else…and He understands the irresistable song the mountains sing to me and maybe one day He will place me among them again. Perhaps then I’ll start to climb them too.

Living Hope

“Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”

That phrase really epitomizes the awkward things we sometimes blurt out after an event where we don’t really know what to say.  When faced with situations like that, chances are the reason we don’t know what to say is because there isn’t anything we CAN say.

In the midst of the horrific tragedy this week that has affected so many people I love, I certainly don’t know what to say.  I don’t know what to do or how to feel either.  I’ve been trying to sort it out in my head, but being verbal processor, when I don’t know what else to do, I write.  So here I am.

Most of you guys reading this probably know about the climbers that were lost on Mount Hood last weekend – Luke Gullberg, Anthony Vietti, and Katie Nolan.  I didn’t personally know any of them, but Katie Nolan had been a member of my church when she lived here in Philly.  Understand that when I say “member” I don’t just mean someone who shows up on Sundays. Katie was deeply involved and richly connected with a lot of the people that I now am privileged to also call my friends.  I have heard nothing but the most heart-felt accolades from everyone I know who had come into contact with her.  The picture I have gotten is one of her as a beautiful, amazing, and dynamic individual.  She clearly loved Jesus, people, and life in general.  Katie was very special.

Right now, I’m struggling to figure out exactly where I fit into the landscape on this one.  After all, I didn’t know Katie.  She wasn’t a part of my life. I didn’t experience her.  And because of that, I feel almost as though I don’t have a right to be as upset as I am.  As if there’s only so much grief to go around and I’m somehow robbing someone of theirs who is more deserving of that emotion.  Of course when I say it like that, it sounds ridiculous, but it’s still how I feel.  But not only is this just one of the most terrible tragedies, the fact that it’s such a public tragedy puts a completely surreal layer on it.  There aren’t words to describe just how weird it is to have something like this actually hit so close.

So why do I feel so profoundly sad?  How can I so easily be brought to tears over this?  I’ve been thinking about it some and I believe the answer is complicated (go figure) but I’ll do my best try and put it into words…I need to.

First and most obviously, my heart breaks for my friends – Katie’s friends – who knew her and know the true extent of what was lost when she disappeared on that mountain.  I hurt so deeply for them, so much so that it’s as if my soul aches.

I also feel a very personal sense of loss at being cheated out of an opportunity to know Katie.  One of Katie’s closest friends here had told me about her on more than one occasion under the heading of “I think you guys would really hit it off.”  Since the tragedy, others have said the same.  From everything I’ve seen, heard, and read about Katie, I would have to agree.  We certainly seem to have had a lot in common, and her adventurous spirit naturally resonated with me.  I want to have known her, but now I won’t get the chance.  And I definitely feel like I’m the one who lost out.

I feel the most heartsick for one of my friends who was particularly close to Katie.  If I were to lose either of my best friends in such a way as this, I don’t know what I would do.  I would probably shutdown.  I might even disintegrate completely.  At the very least, I wouldn’t be able to properly function for awhile…a LONG while.  Thinking about her, I can’t even wrap my head around how she must feel…  What do you do with that?  How do you respond in the awkward space filled with shock and grief?  Probably best to not rely on Hallmark cards to lead the charge. I hate clichés which mean little when things are going well, let alone when a piece of your world has been ripped away.  And I wouldn’t dare try to speculate on what God’s plan might be in all this because…well…I’m not God.  So I sit and pray and think and cry because it’s all I really can do.

And so that’s it for now.  I can’t really think of anything else to say, so before I blurt out something stupid, I’ll just end with this:

We live in a broken, messed-up world and sometimes the things that happen in it really suck.  But at the end of the day, God is still exactly who He says He is, and He will do exactly what He says He will do.  So we can rest knowing that He is at work and one day “He will wipe every tear from [our] eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain…” (Revelation 21:4).

Right now we are in the midst of the season of Advent.  The season of waiting that leads up to the initial entrance of Jesus into the world.  Emmanuel.  God With Us.  Our Living Hope.  He came the first time to save us.  And we can live in hope and ultimate peace knowing that He will come again to completely redeem us and this screwed up world of ours.

You can hang your hat on that – Katie, Luke, and Anthony did.